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Tag: tone of voice

When reading makes you sick

by MDY

It’s more than just a question of taste. I know many literati who will happily say that a book or a play made them want to puke, but we take for granted that they don’t really mean it. My own reactions to words are usually more muted, more accommodating. I try to finish reading every book I start, and when I don’t – for reasons of time, or maladroit disinterest, or the extensible-yet-ultimately-finite span of library loans – I feel a vague shame in the corners of my mouth, like I’ve let the author down somehow.

These symptoms are literal. I had never read Philip Roth before, and while the book (my surface-consciousness has blocked out which one) had an off-putting angst of the polemical about it, there was  no one thing which I could point to and say “see, this has made me ill”. It was violent too, a wrenching of the intestines that sparked great shuddering coughs; the body’s attempt to expunge what foreign object had lodged within my (by this time very) nervous system. I couldn’t get past Chapter 4. There have been other instances too, what I call “textual anaphylaxis” for its suddenness and ferocity, but none as severe as that first instance. There are, as I see it, no correlations of form, subject or tone between my allergens, which has rendered somewhat problematic my attempts at inoculation.

While rare, its consequences can be profound. What if I had been forced to read Roth as part of my studies? Who takes responsibility if a student vomits blood in class: the author, or the teacher who thought “allergic to the book” was a puerile attempt at absenteeism? Those who write are often responsible for their words, whether they expect it or not. Our words are still less likely to ignite claims of medical negligence than libel suits or fatwas. But when we write, our duty of care goes both ways. Just as words can sicken, they can also heal.

Style and Tone 101: All writing is dialogue

by MDY

What do I mean by this? I mean that all writing – or at least effective writing – is meant to be read. One of my lecturers once said that unread writing is like auto-erotic stimulation: you may find it enjoyable, but nothing will come of it in the long run. When someone says a book or poem “spoke to me”, that’s what they’re unconsciously alluding to: the visceral dialogue of the spirit conducted by the most powerful of words. The most important part of controlling the style and tone of your writing is understanding that all writing is dialogue – even if the reader can’t “talk back” to your face. Except in the Comments section.

If it’s a dialogue, who are you talking to?

No matter what you’re writing, you should have an idea of who your “reader” is. Of course, anyone can read what you write. But you should have a clear idea of who your writing is aimed at. Some people call this your “target audience” but that just makes me think of homing missiles and lots of clean-up in the morning. And it’s hard to imagine an “audience” – much easier, I find, to think of specific people. In the case of this blog, I’m writing for a specific group of friends with interests and personalities that I’m familiar with (which makes things a bit easier and more enjoyable than usual).

In most cases, however, I don’t have actual people in mind, so I come up with make-believe people who might read my work (a fertile imagination helps). Then I imagine myself talking to them. I adopt that conversational style in how I then go about my writing. Words are as strong when spoken as they are on paper. If you don’t believe me, try reading your (or others’) work out loud. You’ll see what I mean.

You should also try to imagine how your “reader” would respond when they read your work. As Atticus Finch said, put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to see things from their perspective. You’ll then be better able to judge when things sound right and when they sound…well, broken. If writing’s a dialogue, consider these two examples of writing with the wrong people in mind:

Mark then did write for PR firms, and science-y magazines,
Always meeting deadlines and delivering fine prose.
His bosses testified that he would always have the means
To clinch the interview and  see the copy to its close. – The CV of the Writer


Subjects H1 and H2 first acquired by Nazgul 5 on trajectory towards outpost 3 (codename “Isengard”). H1 and H2 under heavy guard by Alliance forces, including several high-value targets. Nazgul Company engaged H1 and H2 at 0130h but retracted after sustaining heavy fire from Alliance reinforcements (believed from weapons and mana-traces to be of Elvish descent). No casualties sustained. Outpost 3 has been notified of impending arrival and will move to contain and neutralise Alliance forces with all available resources. Threat level: High. – Lord of the Rings: The Classified Documents

See? Right content, wrong style. Definitely wrong tone.

To summarise: I’m tired and have had a weird week, so I’ll get back to proper technical tips (and self-investigative journalism) in the next episode. Keep read/writing,